Friday, June 02, 2017
In his old age, Yoelish Teitelbaum, the first Satmar Rebbe, had outlived his heirs. Although he was leader of the largest Hasidic group in America, with tens of thousands of followers in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, he had no designated successor. One by one, his three daughters had died, each without having given birth to any children. In 1936, his beloved first wife, Chavah, had died as well. Convinced of the truth of the biblical injunction that it was "not good for the man to be alone," he had asserted that he did not want to be "not good" even for a short time. Hoping he might still father a male successor, a few in the family urged him to "choose a widow or divorcee who already had children, to ensure that she would be capable of bearing children." Instead, in August 1937, less than a month before the Jewish High Holy Days, the then nearly 51-year-old Yoelish married Alte Feige Shapiro (1912-2001), the orphaned and never-married daughter of Poland's Tchenstechover (Częstochowa)] Rebbe, who at the time was only half his age. Although old for a first-time Hasidic bride, she was young for a man like the Satmar Rebbe. Her youth recommended her as capable in principle of bearing him children and providing a successor.
But over the years, the rebbetzin Feige, as she was known, failed to bear him any children. Devoted to and fiercely protective of her husband, she had gradually carved out more and more prestige and power in the court and in the Hasidic world — a universe in which women were generally insulated by rules of modesty and kept from most public positions. She guarded her aging husband and his authority, often acting as a go-between who spoke on his behalf and made outsize demands. In the late 1970s, when the rebbe and rebbetzin moved from Brooklyn to his new redoubt, the village of Kiryas Joel, near Monroe in upstate New York, where his followers were effectively a hundred percent of the population and his will was essentially the law, Feige found a place where she expected to reign with even more authority. She had good reason to think so, and even to imagine that she might become the first woman to lead this Hasidic colossus.
The Second Succession Battle: Nephew Versus Rebbetzin
By the time he had moved to Kiryas Joel, Yoelish was a broken vessel. In February 1968, while at Friday night prayers, the then 82- year-old rebbe suffered a devastating stroke. Unconscious for ten days, he woke up to find himself severely impaired in his speech and movement. The question of succession arose again.
For two years after the stroke, Yoelish lived in semi-seclusion from his Hasidim, staying at a summer house in Belle Harbor on Long Island and trying to recover. During this time, his wife, Feige, and his gabbaim, including prominently Yosef Ashkenazi but also Azriel Glick (who following the rebbe's death and at the unveiling of the tombstone would announce that the soul of the departed rebbe could not enter paradise until a successor to him had been selected) and the yeshiva head, Nosson Yosef Meisels, gradually took outsized roles acting as conduits for his messages and as de facto leaders of the community, sometimes even making speeches on his behalf. The power of the rebbetzin loomed particularly large. Credited as founder of the Satmar Ladies Auxiliary and a prodigious fundraiser for Satmar causes, she was also credited with creating the well-known and popular Bikur Cholim, an agency that provided support and help for any Jews hospitalized in the New York area by supplying them with kosher food, free housing for their loved ones near the hospitals, and other services; it became the goodwill side of Satmar that offset the sectarian and anti-Zionist causes that were far more alienating to many Jews. Feige also had outsized power because of the absence of any direct heirs who could be eased into a position of leadership during what would be her husband's ten-year precipitous physical decline.
Feige and the gabbaim maintained the fiction that they were taking direction from Yoelish, and all was as it had been. She even came into the men's section of the synagogue to distribute shirayim, the leftovers of the rebbe's food that he previously would have distributed himself at a tish.
When the ailing rebbe briefly returned to his Hasidim in early spring of 1970, they could see he was a shadow of himself. Although he would deliver a talk in the fall of 1971 at the yeshiva in Williamsburg, his slurred speech was difficult to understand. In 1972, he moved back to Williamsburg into a new house especially outfitted for his physical limitations, but by the spring he was back in Belle Harbor. In September of 1974, he moved to Kiryas Joel, choosing to live far from the center of the village. Throughout these years, the invalid rebbe became a prisoner of his body, as his Hasidim anxiously watched and wondered how his court would sustain itself in the absence of his leadership.
While Feige and the gabbaim seemed in charge from day to day, Moshe Teitelbaum, Yoelish's nephew and nominally the Sigheter Rebbe, was quietly taking a growing role at the court. During his uncle's precipitous decline, Moshe was increasingly being brought into his room in ways that could be seen as setting the stage for a transition of leadership. Hasidim looked for signs from their ailing rebbe that he was ready to anoint Moshe as his successor. They took Yoelish's embrace of Moshe as such a sign, and they reportedly engaged in wordplay and Satmar exegetic interpretation with a famous liturgical blessing recited each Sabbath and holy day, "Al kiso lo yeshev zar" (On his throne shall no stranger sit). They saw the blessing as a reference to their rebbe and his possible successor, since a nephew was no stranger. But the rebbetzin, recalling how Moshe had been among those urging his uncle to divorce her, and realizing that Moshe's succession would leave her irrevocably separated from the center of power, resisted this effort as much as she could. Whereas a dowager rebbetzin who has a son or son-in-law who takes over as a rebbe and still looks upon his mother (or mother-in-law) with respect and because of her continuing family tie cannot cut her off from her royal station, Feige realized Moshe would have no incentive to empower her.
Though she had tacit control over his gabbaim, they would likely be replaced almost immediately by any new leader. She also had the force of her personality and a long history with the Hasidim, particularly her high profile as a fundraiser for charities, and these might support her after her husband was gone. As hard as she could, Feige worked to build up credit and authority, using the nearly ten years of her husband's decline for the purpose. For a long time maintaining a close relationship with some of the most generous Satmar financial supporters, she disbursed funds, on one trip to Israel reputedly carrying "three million dollars to distribute to charity." This was perhaps her strongest card, for it was critically important for the Hasidim, reminding them that she, no less than the rebbe, was the source of their sustenance (mzonei). She did favors, looked to make alliances and generally acted as a powerful stand-in for her ailing husband, even at times speaking from the lectern and delivering blessings from her husband. All this was freighted with symbolic meaning and was normally limited to a rebbe. With her stepdaughter, Roysaele, dead and the latter's widowed husband out of the picture, Feige became a near rebbe. But of course, she could not lead a tish, nor could she give out her own blessings; and when all the other rebbes came together at public occasions, she could never be among them — for women, even powerful ones like the rebbetzin, could not mix with the men in this highly gendered social order. (In March 1979, she remarkably appeared as the only woman at a gathering of Hasidic rabbis in FeltForum in Manhattan, seated behind her husband and listening to his nephew Moshe addressing the crowd.) Even if she could somehow find some modus vivendi that would allow her to make peace with Moshe's taking over her husband's rebistve, she knew that Moshe's oldest son, Aaron, his apparent heir, would take up all the available extra power and leave her with nothing. To Aaron, she was even a greater threat because he could leave her no space if he was to assure himself of a future.
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